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“And that former rake obviously adores you beyond reason,” Annabelle said. She paused, studying Evie intently before asking softly, “Is St. Vincent pleased about the baby, dear?”
“Oh, yes, he’s” Evie broke off and gave Annabelle a wide-eyed glance of surprise. “How did you know?”
Annabelle grinned. “I’ve noticed your new gowns all have front and back pleats that can be let out as your figure expands. It’s an instant giveaway, dear.”
“You’re expecting?” Lillian asked, letting out a tomboyish whoop of delight. She launched off the settee and dropped beside Evie, throwing her long arms around her. “That is capital news! How are you feeling? Are you queasy yet?”
“Only when I saw what you had done to the tree skirt,” Evie said, laughing at her friend’s exuberance. It was often difficult to remember that Lillian was a countess. Her spontaneous nature had not been subdued one whit by her new social prominence.
“Oh, you should not be on the floor,” Lillian exclaimed. “Here, give me the scissors, and I’ll work on this dratted thing”
“No,” Evie and Annabelle said at the same time.
“Lillian, dear,” Annabelle continued firmly, “you are not to come anywhere near this tree skirt. What you do with a needle and thread should be considered a criminal act.”
“I do try,” Lillian protested with a lopsided grin, settling back on her heels. “I start out with such good intentions, but then I get tired of making all those tiny stitches, and I start to hurry through it. But we must have a tree skirt, a very large one. Otherwise there will be nothing to catch the drips of wax when the tree candles are lit.”
“Would you mind telling me what this stain is from?” Annabelle pointed to a dark ugly splotch on the velvet.
Lillian’s grin turned sheepish. “I thought perhaps we could arrange that part in the back. I spilled a glass of wine on it.”
“You were drinking while sewing?” Annabelle asked, thinking that explained quite a lot.
“I hoped it would help me to relax. Sewing makes me nervous.”
Annabelle gave her a quizzical smile. “Why?”
“It reminds me of all the times my mother would stand over me while I worked on my sampler. And whenever I made a mistake, she rapped my knuckles with a ruler.” Lillian gave a self-deprecating grin, but for once the amusement didn’t reach her lively brown eyes. “I was a terrible child.”
“You were a dear child, I’m sure,” Annabelle said gently. She had never been quite certain how Lillian and Daisy Bowman had turned out so well, given their upbringing. Thomas and Mercedes Bowman somehow managed to be demanding, critical, and neglectful, which was quite a feat.
Three years earlier the Bowmans had brought their two daughters to London after discovering that even their great fortune could not induce anyone from the New York upper circles to marry the girls.
Through a combination of hard work, luck, and a necessary ruthlessness, Thomas Bowman had established one of the largest and fastest-growing soap companies in the world. Now that soap was becoming affordable for the masses, the Bowmans’ manufactories in New York and Bristol could scarcely keep up with the demand.
It took more than money, however, to achieve a place in New York society. Heiresses of undistinguished bloodlines, such as Lillian and Daisy, were not at all desirable to their male counterparts, who also wanted to marry up. Therefore London, with its ever-growing pool of impoverished aristocrats, was fertile hunting ground for American nouveaux riches.
With Lillian, ironically, the Bowmans had reached their highest pinnacle in having married her to Marcus, Lord West-cliff. No one could have believed that the reserved and powerful earl would have wed a headstrong girl like Lillian. But Westcliff had seen beneath Lillian’s brash fa?ade to the vulnerability and fiercely loving heart she tried so hard to conceal.
“I was a hellion,” Lillian said frankly, “and so was Rafe. Our other brothers, Ransom and Rhys, were always a bit better behaved, although that’s not saying much. And Daisy would take part in my troublemaking, but most of the time she daydreamed and lived in her books.”
“Lillian,” Annabelle asked, carefully rolling a length of ribbon, “why has your brother agreed to meet with Lady Natalie and the Blandfords? Is he truly ready to marry? Has he need of the money, or is he seeking to please your father?”
“I’m not certain,” Lillian said. “I don’t think it’s the money. Rafe has made a fortune in Wall Street speculations, some of them a bit unscrupulous. I suspect he may finally have tired of being at loggerheads with Father. Or perhaps …” She hesitated, a shadow crossing her face.
“Perhaps?” Evie prompted softly.
“Well, Rafe affects a carefree fa?ade, but he has never been a terribly happy person. Mother and Father were abominable to him. To all of us, really. They would never let us play with anyone they thought was beneath us. And they thought everyone was beneath us. The twins had each other, and of course Daisy and I were always together. But Rafe was always alone. Father wanted him to be a serious-minded boy, so Rafe was kept isolated from other children. Rafe was never allowed to do anything that Father considered frivolous.”
“So he eventually rebelled,” Annabelle said.
Lillian grinned briefly. “Oh, yes.” Her amusement faded. “But now I wonder…what happens when a young man is tired of being serious, and also tired of rebelling? What’s left after that?”